Conflict occurs in every workplace – and it doesn’t just manifest as stand-up arguments or fist fights. Whenever there is a difference of opinion between two people there is some level of conflict at play.
How do you feel about conflict in the workplace? Take a moment to think how you would answer this question:
I think that workplace conflict:
- Always or almost always gives positive results
- Generally gives more positive than negative results
- Gives a mix of positive and negative results
- Generally gives more negative than positive results
- Always or almost always gives negative results
Which option would you pick?
A difference of opinion
In recent research at the Myers Briggs Company, 17% of participants chose one of the first two options, just over half picked the middle option, and 27% chose the fourth, with just 4% saying that the results of conflict are always or almost always negative.
Most people thought that conflict had at least some positive results, and mentioned outcomes such as testing and strengthening relationships, allowing new insights and creative solutions to develop, achieving better solutions, and building greater self-awareness.
Negative outcomes included relationship breakdowns, disengagement and poor morale, anger and resentment, and anxiety and stress.
There were, however, differences between people in how they handled conflict. In particular, individuals with personality preferences for introversion saw conflict less positively, and often dealt with conflict in a less adaptive way, compared with people with extraversion preferences.
Introverts are more likely than extraverts to use an ‘avoiding’ style, trying to avoid conflict, postponing or sidestepping an issue
It’s important to note that we used the MBTI model of personality type in our Myers Briggs Company research. This model suggests that people with a personality preference for extraversion are oriented to and energised by their external environment. While those with an introversion preference are oriented to and energised by their internal world of thoughts and feelings.
Our research found that introverts were more likely to see workplace conflict negatively than extraverts. They were more likely to mention feeling demotivated or discouraged by conflict, and saw themselves, on average, as significantly worse at managing conflict.
Some of these differences may be due to the different styles that extraverts and introverts tend to adopt when faced with conflict.
Managing conflict at work is a useful skill for everyone, not just introverts
Avoidant or accomodating?
Previous research using the Thomas-Kilmann conflict model has shown that introverts are more likely than extraverts to use an ‘avoiding’ style, trying to avoid conflict, postponing or sidestepping an issue rather than dealing with it directly.
While this style can be useful – for example to buy time when tensions are running high – it can also backfire and put the individual at a disadvantage.
Introverts are also more likely than extroverts to use an ‘accommodating’ approach, where a person is more concerned with meeting the other person’s needs than with fulfilling their own.
Again, this can be useful – for example in trying to build a relationship or to demonstrate that you are being reasonable – but it may result in one’s needs not being met and goals not being achieved.
In contrast, extraverts are more likely than introverts to take a ‘competing’ approach, seeking to meet their own needs and to win at all costs.
In a conflict between someone with the competing style and someone with an avoiding or accommodating style, the latter is unlikely to achieve their objectives. This may put many introverts at a disadvantage.
In a conflict between someone with the competing style and someone with an avoiding or accommodating style, the latter is unlikely to achieve their objectives
Competing conflict styles
The Thomas-Kilmann conflict model looks at conflict through the lens of two factors: how much an individual tries to satisfy their own concerns (assertiveness) and how much they try to satisfy the concerns of the other person involved (cooperativeness).
This gives five conflict modes, or styles:
- Avoiding (low assertive, low cooperative)
- Accommodating (low assertive, high cooperative)
- Competing (high assertive, low cooperative)
- Collaborating (high assertive, high cooperative)
- Compromising (a middle position implying splitting the difference, exchanging concessions, or seeking a quick middle-ground)
Each of us can use all five conflict-handling modes, but most people use some modes more readily than others. They develop more skills in those modes and therefore tend to rely on them more often. Indeed, many tend to lean on just one mode most of the time.
Supplying the right tools
If an individual becomes aware that there are other ways of dealing with conflict, they can modify their behaviour to suit the conflict situations in which they find themselves.
This will give everyone the tools for more effective conflict management and help introverts to see the upsides of conflict, become less demotivated, and to realise that they can successfully manage conflict situations.
Managing conflict at work is a useful skill for everyone, not just introverts. In our research, those who had the most positive view of their ability to manage conflict also tended to have higher levels of job satisfaction, felt more able to be their authentic self at work, and felt more valued by their organisation. Training in how to handle conflict is likely to be useful for all workers.
More awareness, less conflict
Dealing with conflict takes time. This is expensive for organisations and can have a negative effect on individuals, so any actions that can be taken to better understand conflict, manage it more effectively, or resolve it more efficiently are likely to pay dividends.
Our research found that the three most common causes of conflict were:
- Poor communication
- Lack of role clarity
- Heavy workloads
These are factors that organisations, managers and HR professionals often have the power to address. The fourth most common cause of conflict is related to personality clashes. Increasing the self-awareness of individuals through using tools such as personality or conflict style assessments may help reduce the effect of these.
Interested in this topic? Read: Extroverts don’t always make the most stable leaders